3pm Dr. Diedra McLane
Because this day will apparently never end, I also have a terribly ill-timed dentist appointment that I’d made 6 months prior. I mean, why not throw in the dentist on the worst day in medical history?
Exhausted and frazzled, I continue on to the final appointment of the day. I haven’t had a cavity in decades and the slick sensation of clean teeth is rather joyful I tell myself. Chin up, buttercup! There’s wine at the end of this tunnel.
I’m not sure if the receptionist was exceptionally cheerful or if my attitude was just a rotted egg salad sandwich one might find in the backseat of their car after two weeks in an uncovered airport parking lot. In Texas. In August. I’ve been coming to this dental office happily for years but my usual chit chat about the staff’s kids, upcoming vacation plans, and recently attended concerts simply wasn’t possible. Mumbling and avoiding eye contact is my new thing.
The hygienist graciously sensed my solemn mood and proceeded efficiently. X-rays were taken and teeth sonically cleaned without unnecessary banter. Laying there incapacitated and vulnerable seemed a fitting end to my day.
Finally, in comes sweet Dr. Diedra. She is kind, soft-spoken, and warm, the only sort of person you can trust rummaging in your mouth with sharp objects. She checks a few things the hygienist had noted during the cleaning and sits me upright.
“You have a tiny cavity,” she gently tells me. I lose it.
Tears torrent out uncontrollably and I can feel an inevitable eruption of sobbing heaves. The hygienist physically recoiled in shock. I get it. Who loses their shit over a cavity? Calm. The fuck. Down.
Dr. Diedra, like a loving mother soothing a crying child, cooed something about it only being a tiny cavity, something she could easily patch up. The tears come harder as everything that she can’t fix flashes through my mind.
Between short, shallow inhales, I sputtered out all that had happened the previous 36 hours. I’m using my dental bib to cry into and it is soaked with tears and snot. I couldn’t make it stop. It was thoroughly humiliating. But it was also incredibly human. How could anyone get through this day without this happening?
Dr. Diedra didn’t turn away from my loss of control, however inappropriately timed and placed. She rubbed my forearm until I could catch my breath. I don’t remember her saying anything. It was one of the truest displays of empathy I have experienced. It could not have come at a better time.
Finally, the tears were replaced by embarrassment and I nodded that I was ready to hear more about the cavity that marked the start of a treatment plan so tedious and terrible I often felt I wouldn’t make it through.
When I got home, I stupidly opened the brochure Dr. Diedra had given me about oral health and chemotherapy. I quickly closed it as descriptions of mouth sores and tooth loss blurred my vision again with tears. Storage space full. Syncing paused. Problem connecting. Information acceptance halted.
There is a silence I believe all of us experience at the end of a day like that. It is a silence so deep and dark and complete that the chaos we feel around us is literally deafening. The sensation of castles made of sand crashing down makes nothing more than a faint whisper.
I sat alone on my couch, numb and paralyzed. Voices, phone calls, city noise outside, the clank of life went away for a moment as the magnitude of the task before me sank in. The silence was the sound of every other worry in my life falling away. It is amazing how singularly focused one becomes. In one day every problem, every single thing I worried about, was gone and replaced by this one thing. Petty arguments, bills, even hopes and dreams were trivialized to almost nil. Immediately, nothing was more important, nothing higher in priority.
The next day I attempted to work, unsuccessfully of course. I willed myself not to use Google. I failed. I tried again. I failed again. I told myself to get away from the computer and find a yoga class. “No,” my mind’s voice yelled. “You’re a hair’s breath from dying and any strenuous activity would certainly kill you.” Of course, that wasn’t true. I had just recently performed a very strenuous aerial silks routine and was in the best shape of my life. I couldn’t convince my mind that I was fine to move around even though I reminded myself that I had had cancer when I performed that routine. Nothing had changed except the knowledge of my situation. Another round of bawling threatened to begin.
A knock on the door surprised me. It was a bouquet of bright flowers from…guess who! Dr. Diedra! Waterworks, obviously. But this time a half-smile snuck through those tears. You really have to be a hot fucking mess to get flowers for being dramatic in a dentist chair.
I was reminded of an episode from Absolutely Fabulous where Edina (played by Jennifer Saunders, one of the funniest women on Earth) is putting on a fashion show and she loses her shit publicly from all the effort. Her sensible, fun-hating daughter yells at her, exasperated with her prima donnaism:
In my defense, it was that difficult. But the perspective check was not lost on me. I know bigger, more horrible, more lose-your-shit-worthy things are happening all the time. I have sympathy for those that have much more to endure than I. I also feel ashamed that I cast myself as a victim sometimes.
There’s a part of me that wishes I could look on the bright side of every negative situation, accurately ranking shitty things that happen to me in the universal hierarchy. But in that ranking, do I always have to put my own pain at the bottom? There’s a part of me that knew my situation was pretty fucking shitty, even in the grand scheme. What do we do when our own sorrow takes the #1 spot?
Lori Gottlieb eloquently describes in Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, “ There is no hierarchy of pain. Suffering shouldn’t be ranked, because pain is not a contest.” Thank you for that reminder!
So, I accepted the flowers without shame or embarrassment, in the way they were intended. I let myself feel gratitude that someone saw my pain and wanted to do something kind for me, someone who really doesn’t even know me well. I let myself deserve those flowers for having the worst day I’d ever had and as encouragement for the incredible challenge I had ahead of me. I stopped crying and started getting down to business.
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I love your beautiful soul. Trauma is hard to unravel. Thank you for sharing your story ♥️